Editor’s note: This is the 13th story in our Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program “Stories of Recovery” series, featuring attorneys in their own words on how they overcame mental health or substance abuse problems. The State Bar’s TLAP program offers confidential assistance for lawyers, law students, and judges with substance abuse or mental health issues. Call TLAP at (800) 343-8527 and find more information at texasbar.com/TLAP.
Many of us who practice law while impaired by depression don’t know we are depressed. Having the blues is often the rule rather than the exception for lawyers, so we don’t know that we could or should feel any different.
While I practiced in a depressed state, I expected the worst from my clients, prosecutors, and judges. I withdrew from the society of my friends and colleagues. The things that had brought me pleasure no longer did so. There were times I couldn’t focus on the task at hand. It was often difficult to meet deadlines.
There were times I knew what I needed to do and how to do it but was unable to find the motivation to get started. This state of affairs brought on the predictable results: missed deadlines, continual requests for continuances, and making appearances with less preparation than I would have liked.
I denied there was a problem. I turned to alcohol and other substances to self-medicate. My depression couldn’t be diagnosed and treated until I was separated from the drugs and alcohol.
After I began recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, I was diagnosed as having depression. I was given medication and met with a counselor. Over time, I began to feel relief from the dark foreboding that I had believed would always be a part of my life. I learned that depression was a disease recognized by the medical community and that it really wasn’t anything other than an imbalance in brain chemicals. By the time I was diagnosed, the stigma I had associated with depression had been significantly lifted.
There are questions a patient friend can ask that may help a depressed person realize the mood he feels is a symptom of a disease and that there is a treatment. Medical treatment for depression seems to be more art than science in many cases. Medications that work well for one person sometimes don’t work so well for the newly diagnosed attorney. It is often a “hit and miss” process.
It is during these times, when one medication—or even one medication after another—isn’t relieving the symptoms that the depressive wants to give up and live with depression. I was fortunate and the medication that was prescribed for me worked. I have encouraged many friends and family members to be open to the process of finding the right medication and staying with the regimen that is prescribed until the darkness begins to lift.
When we become aware that a usually conscientious colleague is missing deadlines or appearing at court unprepared, we should expect that something is causing the change in behavior. A little investigation usually results in the discovery that our friend is drinking more than usual, is enduring a personal crisis, or may be acting out in some other fashion. Often, though, she may be a colleague impaired by depression.
Our first response is often to ignore the symptoms and hope they go away or that another colleague will intervene. We often fear we will offend our friend by asking about their behavior, that we will “open a can of worms” that we really didn’t want to open, or that we are wrong in our observation of the symptoms.
The “reaching out” process, which is necessary for the depressive to receive assistance, is a two-way street. Either the depressed person must reach out to a friend or colleague for assistance or a friend must reach out to the depressive to help him recognize he is suffering.
It is often very difficult for the depressed attorney to recognize he is depressed. Though it is often difficult for the “well” lawyer to put herself in the position to assist an impaired colleague, it is more likely to be successful than waiting for the depressed attorney to “snap out of it” and seek assistance.